Liberals, conservatives and modernity
From 17th century onwards we can clearly see the emergence of the age that has been called “modernity”. It musty be the least unique name ever given to an epoch as every age is modern to those living in it. But we’re stuck with it now, and the interesting thing is that it is passing. Modernity is grinding on to a dishevelled, ungainly and uncivilised end. Postmodernity might have been modernity’s last gasp, but even that has slipped away.
The patron saint of modernity is Rene Descartes (1596–1650 ). His fatal Latin tag, cogito ergo sum - “I think therefore I am”, whilst not responsible for the whole of modernity, of course, nonetheless provides the motto, the base line and the working principle for the age.
The disastrous strap line “I think therefore I am” has shaped 400 years of western human endeavour and there are many, many folk who would insist that the scientific, technical and social advancements over those centuries prove that Cartesian philosophy has a utility and robustness that prove it is one of great intellectual landmarks in human history.
Unfortunately there is one rather large and inconvenient truth, and that is this: my thoughts are not me and the ideas inside my head do not define or even describe me. My thoughts and ideas are largely a by-product of me being me. Once I start to concentrate on them and give them a centrality they do not deserve, the real me quickly becomes lost behind the indiscriminate activity of my brain. My brain likes to entertain itself with ideas and thoughts which it has convinced itself are the honest and objective expressions of that which is “me”.
It turns out that the real “me” is rather more difficult than that to define.
Conservatism is a direct consequence of modernity. It is the establishment of the autonomous individual, triumphant over life itself, that establishes itself as a self confident, clear thinking and self referential world view.
It has a twin, liberalism, which, yes, is the establishment of the autonomous individual, triumphant over life itself, that establishes itself as a self confident, clear thinking and self referential world view. Conservative and liberal world views are like two people gazing past each other with precisely the same set of misconceptions, neither able to enter into real dialogue with the other, yet neither being able to do without the other. They are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the wonderland of modernity.
Conservatives and Liberals are basically the same ... 1: Scripture
I have spent most of my life content to be called a liberal for the simple reason I wasn't a conservative. But after half a century of stumbling along the Way, having been a conservative evangelical in my late teens until about 21 years of age and rubbing along with liberals for most of the last 45 years I have finally come to see that I'm not a liberal and that liberals and conservative have more in common than divides them. As an Anglican I sit comfortably with neither. I'm nothing if I'm not a quick learner.
I am persuaded by the three things the Anglican tradition sets up as the basis for reading scripture in the 39 Articles and the Declaration of Assent:
1) The faith is uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture ( Declaration of Assent)
2)"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation" (Article 6)
2)".. it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." (Article 20)
It is clear from these three principles that scripture is held in the highest regard, but it is also clear that there is no sense in which they are to be read literally or without discrimination. That was certainly the intention of those who carefully framed the polity of Anglicanism in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The intention of the Articles is to exclude anything as necessary to salvation which the Church had erroneously introduced - perhaps most obviously the notion of indulgencies. Richard Hooker writes "Being therefore persuaded by other means that these Scriptures are the oracles of God, themselves do then teach us the rest, and lay before us the duties which God requireth at our hands as necessary unto salvation". And he later writes, "... so our own words also, when we extol the complete sufficiency of the whole entire body of the Scripture, must in like sort be understood with this caution, that the benefit of nature's light be not thought excluded as unnecessary, because the necessity of a diviner light is magnified.
"Being therefore persuaded by other means...." Reading scripture assuming that it will interpret itself simply will not do. And so any literal or "simple and plain" reading of scripture goes against the very nature of the scripture itself. On the other hand there are these "other means" which persuade us so we cannot simply dispense with scripture should it prove inconvenient. It has an intellectual voracity we cannot avoid.
Tradition and Reason
In the Anglican trajectory of thought both tradition and reason are placed alongside scripture, for without them we cannot begin to understand scripture.
Tradition in this sense does not mean a collection of humanly contrived doctrines and practices but the ongoing and evolving story from earliest times until now and on into the future, a story that we are a part of, engaging with, and which informs our reading of scripture.
Reason, here, is not so much cleverness as the ability to see the truth in love.
The recovery of Lectio Divina is to be welcomed as it breathes both tradition and reason as scripture is read corporately. It is a deeply catholic-and-reformed approach that chimes with the Anglican procession of thought.
Scripture is thus not above tradition and reason, because without them it is unintelligible, or misunderstood, or merely ignored.
The mistake too many conservative and liberal readers of scripture make is to expound scripture as an absolute in itself. The conservative tends to expound it as literally and so necessarily inerrantly true whilst the liberal will tend to dispense with any authoritative role for scripture since it is incapable of providing a consistent witness. But it was never intended to be judged only against itself.
These opposite conclusions arise out of the shared, but mistaken, understanding of tradition as a human construction and reason as the exercise of intellectual prowess.
For the conservative not only tradition but reason also is corrupted by sin, and for the liberal tradition is interesting but not determinative, and reason, as an intellectual activity, is their greatest ally.
But both fail to understand tradition to be something in which we live and reason to be the truth held in love.
I wish to argue that Classical Anglicanism (catholic-and-reformed) rejects both the conservative and liberal approaches to scripture and places scripture alongside tradition and reason, when tradition and reason are properly understood.
Conservatives might counter that they merely wish to let scripture speak for itself. But it cannot.
Liberals similarly confuse the clinical editing of the text with the discernment of the landscape of scripture with its contradictions and confusions.
The landscape of scripture requires a map - tradition - and a compass - reason - to navigate safely. Because God the Holy Spirit is present and active in all three.
Next: Liberals, conservatives and modernity.
That's a good question as I do include Fundamentalists, but I know there are those who are willing to be called Conservative who would reject the term Fundamentalist (which is fair enough, conservative isn't a monolithic block, either!). I'm trying to avoid a side skirmish that detracts from the main thrust of my argument! But Fundamentalism is certainly one of Modernity's most sad and wretched children.